Unfinished conclusions

The Unfinished Table

What is this obsession with finishing things? Does life really become more manageable with beginnings, middles and ends, or is ‘finished’ just a comfort zone? The point at which any act concludes is purely subjective. We are in a perpetual state of unfinished everything. Our emotions exceed the chemicals that manufacture them. Even when dead we carry on living through the tinctures we leave behind. The economics of creativity demand that we deliver conclusions to our clients and audiences. But dare to think that an idea might have been realised, and the restless invent-a-holic inside you screams that ‘finished’ is a merely a contrivance; a close relative of “Are we there yet?” and “When are you going to grow up?”

During the 1980s I was a partner in a London based prototype workshop and an ideas store in West Berlin. The arrangement emerged from the frustration of sourcing adventurous manufacturers, and the aggravation of trying to show work in other people’s spaces. The beauty of our own premises went something like this: Monday (London) big idea, drawings and models. Tuesday: exploring functionality of emerging prototype. Wednesday: destroy prototype. Thursday: re-jigged manufacturing techniques inspire re-configured prototype. Friday: testing and pushing. Saturday: finessing, paint and tweaks. Sunday: Load truck and drive to Berlin. Monday: fledgling object attracting attention in the Schlüterstraße windows. This fast-track route from inception to reaction was incredibly compelling because the more we dreamed it – the more it happened.

The Cold War was running on empty. East and West Berlin were like Siamese twins spitting with sibling rivalry. Tin-pot generals, faceless apparatchiks and secret service operatives spooked each other to the edge of reason and back. The politicians slugged it out in phoney slanging matches. World War II was still unfinished business. Peace had never been declared. Each side of the city exaggerated its extremities: the West in conspicuous consumption, the East in a dreary repression. The opposing powers played a swaggering game of brinkmanship. American Forces Network Radio flaunted itself as  ‘…a beacon of hope in a vortex of tyranny’. Soviet propaganda bragged that life behind the iron curtain was ‘…imaginative, inventive and open to the world’. We stewed in a neurotic pleasure-dome. We danced till dawn in clubs fitted out like jungles, or tropical beaches, or giant padded cells. Disaffected German youth flocked to West Berlin for its licentiousness and the Berliner ID card, which exempted them from national service. Strangely nihilistic student riots only succeeded in reducing the windows of the precious Ku’damm boutiques to smithereens. Our guardian angel was Laurie Anderson, and the anthem was O Superman for its atonal and asymmetric astringency. She conjured up a nowhere of non-places. She warped, manipulated, deconstructed and sharpened our senses by bending perception. She squeezed her voice through digital interfaces until they morphed into synthesized apparitions. We lived for the moment because the end of the world almost but never quite happened.

West Germany was in ferment; its post-war renaissance driven by a government quick to suppress any activism that could jeopardise the ‘economic miracle’. But this vision of a spotless society on the road to recovery was pockmarked by the bombings, kidnaps and assassinations of the Red Army Faction. They claimed to speak for a new generation alienated by a post-war bourgeoisie papering over the horrors of the Third Reich, but they were just another bunch of thugs. The nuclear stand-off made Washington and Moscow equally tetchy. Twenty years earlier the USSR President Nikita Khrushchev joked that Free Berlin represented the ‘Testicles of the West’. Eastern Bloc irritation at ‘capitalist provocation’ was signalled with petulant border closures. We were stranded in 10-kilometre tail-backs of trucks on the DDR autobahn corridor. The lethal no-man’s-land, machine gun towers, booby-trapped razor wire and grizzly militia added up to a surreal brutality. The Wall filleted streets down the middle, and although contact – even waving – was strictly forbidden, East and West hausfraus in carved up neighbourhoods pretended to clean windows in unison. The 365-metre high revolving telecommunications tower in the secular East was known affectionately as ‘God’s Revenge’ for its phenomena of transubstantiating rays of sunshine into a cock-eyed crucifix. Even U-Bahn stations became ‘other countries’, as you on Platform West stared across the tracks at them on Platform East.

My creativity was evolving into narratives around schisms, the attraction of opposites, the clash of similarities, and the sparks that arc across loose ends. Deliberately unfinishing provoked in-betweeny stuff that lurched towards even more revealing excursions. Unfinishing meant unlearning completion. Falling off the straight and narrow. Neither coming nor going. I had been increasingly working with wood because of its unfinished qualities – from the germinating seed, to the insatiable roots, to the ever-expanding branches, to the cycles of the seasons, to the felling and the drying, to the expanding and contracting, to the transformation into furniture and to numerous presences through generations of lives. The Unfinished Table began with the idea of creating a space in which opposites could meet. It also became a kind of domestic schematic that cut through the fog of familial complexity. One elevation of the table was honed to perfection with turned legs, ogee mouldings and deep golden patina. The other end appeared fresh from the timber yard complete with sealed end grain and splinters. The central area became transitional and reflected the common ground between the bi-polar madness of the times. Its form was critical because the dining table – unlike walls that divide cities – symbolised the lowering of defences and exchanges of ideas. Dinner guests who craved resolution clustered around the ‘finished’ frame of mind, whereas more spontaneous folk were drawn towards the ‘unfinished’ state of being. Ambivalent visitors who could not decide where to sit, hovered somewhere in the middle. But as the table began to work its magic and the camaraderie melted inhibitions, people moved from one end to the other, prompting animated discussions around how unfinishing can liberate us from the tyranny of THE END.

Tom

PS Here’s another 66000mph angle on unfinished business, this time in terms of narrative, organisations and faith.

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